Photo Credit: Molly Thornberg

When I began this blog a few months ago, I promised myself that I wouldn’t use it to critique other cause marketing campaigns.  After all, I’m about to embark on a campaign of my own and until I can prove that mine works, what right do I have to critique anyone else’s?

But I have been studying other people’s campaigns, incredibly closely, to learn the best that’s out there and what not to do.  And it’s in that light that I want to spend a little time on the recently vilified (and seemingly now defunct) Skechers cause-related brand, Bobs Shoes.

By now, plenty of folks have written about Bobs and its obvious rip-off of Toms Shoes.  The feedback was overwhelmingly negative, with criticism levied against Skechers for copy-catting Toms Shoes, coming across as an insincere campaign, or just flat out failing to follow some of the now-developing rules around cause marketing.  You can read several of these assessments yourself here, here, and here, as well as an article in the LA Times making the same basic argument.  I won’t spend time reprinting what they’ve already written.

I first came across Bobs Shoes while reading Lalia Helmer’s blog.  In her respectful post on this topic, Lalia took the time to really analyze what Skechers had done wrong and ultimately provided readers (like me) with compelling lessons learned.  I read it on my iPhone on the metro, and, feeling a little more enlightened, retweeted it automatically:

Great analysis and lessons by @laliahelmer: Business Tht Cares- How Not To Do Business Philanthropy-Like Skechers BOBS

Then, having absorbed those lessons I did what every good citizen of the tweetverse would do – I forgot all about it in favor of the next tweet and the next interaction.

A few days later (today), it resurfaced.  Scrolling through the iPhone, again on the metro, I found the post calling Skechers a #fail and I decided I had to investigate further for myself.  In doing so, I discovered a few things:

  • Almost everyone writing cares a whole lot about marketing. They know cause marketing and they know good cause marketing from bad cause marketing.  And they have been studying Toms Shoes for several years now.  My guess is that Skechers reaches more people than have heard of Toms, people who would be impressed with the idea of BOGO and proud to support Skechers for doing it.
  • Reading the comments sections, not everyone agrees Skechers is doing such a bad thing.  People note that Skechers is giving two pairs to charity for every pair they sell, that the Toms Shoes founder actually wants his model to be copied, and that they’re charging a few dollars less than Toms.  What’s so bad about that?
  • And, as I also applaud Lalia and the Digital Mom Blog for doing, they note that Soles4Souls, the nonprofit beneficiary of the campaign, donates millions of shoes to children in need and does great things (well, almost everyone.  One of my favorite bloggers, Saundra Schimmelpfennig, noted in her comments on Lalia’s post that giving free clothes to developing countries ruins their local economies, and that’s a damn good point.  She also wrote a blog post about it today on her blog).

And so I came to a different conclusion, and the whole reason I put off developing my business tonight to write this post.  Bobs Shoes already seems like a thing of the past.  There is no mention of it on Skechers website and links from a week ago now lead nowhere.  The campaign may still be ongoing in stores, but not online.  I can only imagine that Skechers pulled it after all the criticism.  And remember, it’s good criticism and for cause marketing to work in the long run companies have to do more than just copy other campaigns and who knows – maybe it’ll be back in a few weeks firing on all cylinders.  But in this case, a well-liked nonprofit (Soles) lost what probably would have been a solid revenue stream all because they decided to go with a business model that already proved to work.

I hope as we develop into a peer-reviewing community that we will continue to uphold the goal of promoting the causes we support.  We lampoon campaigns, declare them DOA before consumers have had a chance to engage, and hold them to a standard whose ink is still wet.  Rightly, we worry about the effect of bad campaigns on the cause marketing field, we worry about cause-fatigue and cause-washing, and we worry about violating consumers’ trust.  Companies must be more transparent and do away with the BS language they use to sound more benevolent than they are.  But we must remember that on the receiving end of each critique is a cause.  Lalia’s post is a good example of how to have the right balance.  Otherwise, causes may be the unwitting victims as cause marketing continues to evolve.


11 Responses to Cause Marketing Growing Pains

  1. Megan Strand says:

    Thoughtful points, Ian.

    I did a post not too long ago about the risks of cause marketing and you’re basically describing one of them. I don’t know enough about the Sketchers campaign to comment personally, but from what you’ve described, consumers and marketers cried foul. And therein lies the risk of cause marketing. You have to be very cautious when dealing with causes or you’re likely to get skewered (versus just plain ignored).

    A copycat campaign in itself isn’t bad…happens all the time in other marketing strategies…but a copycat cause campaign better be well thought-out and communicated effectively or look out!

    There are so many causes and so many needs in this world of ours, it seems a bit odd that a cause marketing campaign would need to be copied so closely. You’re basically ditching the competitive advantage aspect of a cause campaign, IMHO.


    • Hey Megan,

      Thanks for your comments. I’d forgotten about that post, but yes, you are right. This is visible stuff and anyone who’s engaging better be aware that all eyes are on them. I certainly believe every campaign better live up to the scrutiny of the peers in the community. I just wonder what the back-end story on this is – who made the error to drive this campaign like that – Skechers or Soles?

  2. You’ve highlighted some great points, Ian.

    The popularity of cause marketing is growing. Every week we see new campaigns on television, print ads and new media. Businesses are fearful that they won’t survive after the holiday season. They panic and see cause marketing as a way to increase revenue by pulling the heart strings of their consumers. But, they should know that cause marketing isn’t another name for “Santa Clause.” It’s marketing.

    The cause marketing community (leaders, agencies, and evangelists) is very small and close knit. They are protective and critical of cause marketing campaigns — not because they are, but because they want companies to succeed. If cause marketing strategies continue to be executed poorly, it reflects back on the community. Therefore, the advocates of cause marketing question and critique these campaigns under a microscope so that businesses can learn from their feedback.

    Personally, I think Sketchers should have done it differently with BOBs Shoes (rather than copy TOMs Shoes) because the campaign went unnoticeable and therefore forgettable. In fact, I’ve never seen or heard of the Sketchers campaign until I started to read the critiques on several blogs. Remember, cause marketing is to benefit both the business and the cause. Did the campaign help the business? or did it hurt the business by copying an existing campaign that is unique to TOMs Shoes?

    Thank you for posting. Keep up the great work!

    Noland Hoshino
    twitter @nolandhoshino

    • Noland,

      Thanks for the comments. The cause marketing community is incredibly tight and close-knit. That’s for sure. Twitter is awesome for bringing everyone together and the pace at which the industry is developing because of the comments on blogs and critiques of campaigns is phenomenal. It’s great to watch and be a part of. I guess the Skechers guys forgot to check the blogosphere before they put their plan on paper (if they did).

  3. Joe Waters says:

    Great post, Ian. Someday we’ll joke: “What do you call 500 bad cause marketing promotions at the bottom of the ocean?” And we’ll sing in unison, “A good start!”

  4. Heidi Massey says:

    Hey Ian,

    Great post! I have this thought about you reading on your phone on the train. You are probably pretty typical of what goes on today. That is the world we live in. Few people take a lot of time to do just about anything, including learning about what companies are doing for social good. Therefore, campaigns need to be simple. But sometimes in their desire to be simple, substance is left out.

    This makes me wonder if the ultimate issue is about authenticity. I know, I know-another buzz word! But we are all so eager to go viral, be the latest, the greatest everything and to do so quickly. Perhaps it is time for our world to take a deep breath, sit back, take things in and think. Maybe speed isn’t always everything. Maybe hitting it big isn’t either. Maybe the real goal is for each of us to forge our own path in a thoughtful deliberate manner. I don’t know if that works in the biz world-heaven knows, I am NOT of that world. But I gotta believe that a company that wants to truly align itself with a cause should be met by an organization representing that cause with some real guidelines for how things need to be done. Perhaps I am old fashioned, but I am not sure how you rush authenticity when working with a cause. It takes time to show that you are authentic…it cannot be rushed. It’s a matter of trust. The companies that are successful at this I would guess are also more likely to be more successful in business and the cause marketing campaign will confirm what customers already know about them.

    Wondering if the cause marketers out there are going to jump all over me…certain that those in the business world will. I am thankful that you are taking the time to be thoughtful about these issues and appreciate that you are inspiring others to do so as well. Keep the convo going!

    • Heidi, I’m positive that’s the right way to go and it’s been borne out over and over and over again. Even in a world of quick bites, or especially in a world of quick bites, authenticity is the best way to keep people’s attention and not lose them. And it does take time. The Skechers campaign seems to be thrown together in a moment and is inauthentic and yet the reaction from the community that’s built over time is truly authentic. I do applaud that. As I noted with Megan, I guess the real lesson is for the nonprofits – don’t align yourself with a big company but an inauthentic campaign. It’ll come back to haunt you quickly!

      Still getting used to my new Mac, btw. All the keyboard shortcuts are different! Any advice?

  5. Lalia Helmer says:

    Hi Ian,
    Wow, thank you so much for the great review of my post.Your post was really well balanced and thoughtful about all sides of the issue. Maybe that is why you got more comments on this then I did!, with the exception of the dialogue that ensued between me and Saundra.

    In total honesty I struggled about writing that post because generally I don’t like to go negative. I prefer to see all sides of an issue as you did, and because I see my role in my blog as providing inspiration by highlighting the positive things companies are doing. In truth the post was more about the things a business should do rather than not and I was intentionally careful with the double negatives so as to help people be able to flip it in their heads.

    And- Saundra’s points about the negative impacts of this kind of aid in general are valid, and need to be addressed properly also. You can her comment’s on my post that you mentioned.

    I liked your point that this is about “growing pains”. In all of these cases, including the Pink Buckets for the Cure, which I also wrote about awhile ago, there are several things to be learned for all the parties involved, including us bloggers writing about them. Cause marketing, CSR, business philanthropy and the variety of social philanthropic ventures, (and the lines are getting blurrier), all of them are somewhere in the context of social innovation. Innovation requires experimentation and risk and often huge mistakes. This whole area of social innovation is in its infancy and as a result will stumble and fall. Hopefully we can catch some of the failures before they impact too many people negatively and hopefully we can celebrate the successes also, so as to further making a positive impact on the world.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful post.

    • Hey Lalia,

      Thanks for your comments. I’m happy you felt that way about the post. Yours really did stick out when I read multiple ones on this issue as not only balanced but also much more analytical. You didn’t just skewer them for copying but had cogent ideas for how it could have been done better. I really appreciated that.

      I agree that it’s early to say what all this innovation will mean. As Joe said, it’s all part of the foundation that will build something really spectacular down the road. I’ve truly enjoyed learning and growing as the field has grown, and I’m proud to be developing a product that will hopefully contribute to that growth. Only time will tell.

      Until then, we’ll keep teaching and learning from each other and the members of this community.

  6. Auren Kaplan says:

    Ian, thank you for a thoughtful and well-written article.

    I saw a few familiar names in your comments, so hi to Noland and Heidi! :)

    I first want to respond to your argument directly. I think you’re right, that the cause-marketing world needs to recognize the good that can be done through a BOGO campaign, especially one that gives away two shoes instead of one.

    But Noland is correct in asserting that the campaign has to fit certain minimum standards, because the movement of tying cause to business is so nascent. As companies like TOMS Shoes become normal, more and more businesses will begin to integrate cause into the core of their business model. And it’s important that companies engage in the action in a way that moves the world forward, their business forward, and the larger movement to tie business to cause.

    If, as Heidi mentions, inauthenticity takes hold, then American consumers could find something negative to hold on to as a raison d’etre for not supporting social business. And society can’t afford that. I respect the do’ers in the world and I too agree with Lalia that I wanted to be careful not to take too biting of a tone.

    But you don’t blatantly copy a company’s rationale for existence, in a way that could be deliberately misleading, and then expect them to succeed. As Heidi wrote, consumers want real. Which is healthy, and ought to be continued. BOBS doesn’t move that forward, because of its disingenuous take on TOMS Shoes. It’s a tough topic, because it still does good. I appreciate you grappling with it. I look forward to more of your posts.

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